Is a Harley Sportster 883 a good first bike?

883, Harley Davidson, learner, Sportster, xl883 -

Is a Harley Sportster 883 a good first bike?

Harley Sportster 883 as a  beginners bike?

This is a question we get asked a lot and something I see all over the web.  

I guess it's a favourite question because undoubtedly among Harleys, the Sportster looks pretty cool and 883ccs of capacity sounds like a lot of motor for the money. The overall size also looks appealing to the less experienced.

Sportster 883

As a 'smaller' Harley, the Sportster has earned, somewhat unfairly, the reputation of girls bike or in some cases a 'starter Harley'. Absolutely not right, many riders get on bigger Harleys, other bikes and they come back to them for their own particular appeal. They are not the nimblest or fastest bikes around but have plenty of unique character that makes the Sporsters loved around the globe. Compared to the larger twins in the same stable, they are smaller - but in no way a little bike and definitely not light.

 883 sportster blue

Understandably anyone who is just getting into riding and has decided on the Harley brand will gravitate to the smallest bike of choice. ( I don't count the indian-made 'street' 500 or 750 series worthy of the Harley badge.)

Let me say, the Sportster in any flavour - be it Harley Sportster 883 or 1200, is not a small bike. They are a pretty porky piece of metal to be moving about. If you've ever tried pushing one around a parking lot, you'll know the average weight of the typical 260kg 883 is pretty porky.

Take a contemporary comparison of a Honda Rebel, which weighs around 180kg, that's an 80kg difference which you will definitely feel when you have to push it around or pick it up! Personally, would I want a Rebel over a Sportster? Hell No. But to learn on one and drop it a few times - perhaps worth thinking about.

harely 883 sportster

Weight and its effect on motorcycles

Weight is key to just about every measurable aspect of motoring: acceleration, handling, braking, fuel economy, just to name a few... In most cases, the lighter, the better and the Harley Sportster is far from light.

Particularly for beginners. Why? Because simple physics make heavier bikes more difficult to handle. If you drop it (either off the stand or otherwise) picking up the motorcycle is something you'll have to contend with. About the only thing a heavy bike has to offer is stability where a superlight motorcycle can be a bit twitchy over bumps or cross-winds.

If you're fortunate enough not to get into any trouble at all when beginning to ride a bike, a heavier bike will just make things a bit harder for you.

The Sportster's brakes are not particularly good. When matched with that amount of heft the braking performance is pretty underwhelming in comparison with modern standards. In emergency braking situations, I found myself looking for gaps rather than trying to pull up short. Harley also only recently started adding abs to the Sporster - so if you are grab-happy best look for an ABS-equipped model.

As far as I know, only the 883r came equipped with twin discs. So do the new roadsters and the older R versions, however they are 1200cc.

Lean angles are adequate on most models unless you've picked up something 'slammed' (like a Sportster 48) in which case you'll be sweating every round-about you'll see. However, even the low Harley Sportster can be picked up a bit by changing out the rear shocks for something taller.

On the Iron 883 I had, it wouldn't touch down without some provocation so most beginners should be ok with the standard clearance. Just don't go buying a 'slammed' Sportster. While they look cool when parked - you'll dread the sight of every roundabout.

Beware the steering lock!

As a little tip, which could save your life - as with most Harleys, the Sportster will let you drive off with the steering locked. So if you do lock your steering, put something bright on your tacho to remind yourself to unlock it. I did this once and learned the hard way. I parked the bike with it pointed uphill, so when I started it, the steering was already in the right direction. Anyways - I pulled away, and you know what happened next... I really think HD should change this idiotic feature. If you leave it on by accident, likely, you'll only do it once. For those who would argue that's its a good feature that prevents theft - I'll say every other bike on the planet has it too, just not one that you can drive away with while the steering is locked!

The dismal fuel range on the Sporty is partly due to a relatively inefficient motor combined with a small tank and heavy bike. The custom versions of the sporty have larger tanks, while other models like the seventy-two or forty-eight amazingly have even smaller tanks than standard. If you just ride in the city, this won't be a problem and you'll probably welcome the breaks!

A clear-headed evaluation will leave you at the verdict that the 883, or any Sportster is in fact not much of a beginners bike at all. True it's a fun, stylish bike, that affordable and very cool. It can be made to perform quite well, but there simply are better choices for the first bikes to keep safe and feel confident in these early stages of riding.

Is there anything about an 883 that is good for beginners? Absolutely.

Enough has been mentioned about maybe why not consider the 883 for your first bike. Nevertheless, there are a few good reasons why they can be considered. Straight out of the shop, they aren't very powerful - so the mediocre brakes won't matter so much, and it will take a lot of provoking to get to problematic speeds.

Depending on what model you go for, the seat height is quite low which always makes things easier for learners.

The upside of a heavy bike is that it's stable and smooth. It's not skittish and very stable in sweeping bends.

While the 883 mill is no fire-breather, the low-down torque makes it easy to ride and hard to stall. No need to feather the clutch, just let-it-go. It will also pull cleanly from pretty much any gear so you won't need to hunt a gear with power constantly.

The overall simplicity of the bike makes life and concentrating on the road easier. The 883 is pretty much an engine with two-wheel, a seat and handlebars! Ok, ok - that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but not a big one. The rubber belt is virtually maintenance-free, which is a welcome addition in anyone's language.

If you are absolutely hell-bent on a Harley Sportster as a first bike because you love it, well go for it. It can make a grand first motorcycle, all I'm saying is there are better choices out there to begin on. As with any bike if you be careful, you should be ok.

Harley Sportster 883 Black

The upside is you can pick up a used Harley Sportster quite cheaply, and the aftermarket for parts is astonishing. So you could potentially keep your learner bike and keep upgrading it. It's quite possible to upgrade the sportster to an angry asphalt tearing v-twin beast.

That brings me to another point, the Sportster platform and engine is largely unchanged since the 1950's which makes it easy to work on, if that's your thing. Doing services on your sportster is someone just about everyone could do, which is always handy on keeping the bills down.

Just take into account what I've written about above and take it easy and keep it slow. Learn the limitations of the brakes, lean angles and watch some videos on how to pick it up if you do indeed find it the wrong way down!

Resale considerations

Many rider will sell their first bike within 1-2 years of starting to ride. They will typically trade for bigger, better, faster. As mentioned before, the Sportster really is a bike you can keep forever and upgrade and build as you go.

That said, if you do sell it, it is also one of those bikes you can sell for at least the same amount you bought it for, unless you were dumb enough to buy new. I only say that because the current model / chassis hasn't changed since 2004. Unless you're loaded and just have to have that 'new' colour - do yourself a favour and buy a nice one second hand. They are the same bike. Let somone else take the depreciation hit.

 Sportster Books

Harley-Davidson Sportster: Sixty Years



Harley-Davidson XL Sportster 2014-2017: Maintenance, Troubleshooting, Repair


The blue one you see in the photos I bought for $6000 (Australian dollars), with only 8500kms on the clock.

Now, those of you who have been reading and paying attention to the pictures would have noticed two things: The yellow bike in the shots is not an xl883.

Harley Sportster XL1200r Roadster

So this is a 2004 R1200r with twin disc brakes, modified air intake, cams, exhaust and suspension. We are fairly seasoned riders which mean we know how to flog the hog! Oh, and in case you are wandering - the modified 1200r is a hoot to ride - but still not a beginners bike.


  • Rob Straten

    I just bought a 1989 harley sportster. it has little mini aps on it absolutely love it . After reading some of the comments, knowing that I can upgrade and put a bigger motor in this pig I’m happy riding the Sportster

  • Byron Gerard Howard

    I have an old iron head XLX 61. I love this bike would not trade or sell it. Want to buy it 25500. 00 bucks it’s not for sale. Even took it to Korea.

  • maddog

    883 great starter. You always say I wish I had a bigger bike. Have the 883 converted to 1200. Bam bigger bike at a lower cost.

  • Fernando Chavez

    I really enjoyed the article. I have a 2003 1200 Sporty 100th Anniversary and I live it

  • Charles Rubi

    Been riding on an on since I was 17,learned on an Yamaha rd350, maybe six rides,in 1978 bought my first bike1978 KZ1000,at 65 I have a Ninja ZX750r,an a Sportster 48,2016,if you want to ride,an have the courage, get what you want,don’t listen to the naysayers, riding a motorcycle gives me pleasure still to this day,live sport bikes,an live the look of my Sportster 48, everyone has an opinion,this is mine, people who call it a beginner or girls bike,have theirs,I won’t get into what I think of people like that

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

Item is added to cart